ANWR drilling foes see chance to sow doubt

Steny Hoyer, at podium, will be the House majority leader in January. Photo:Liz Ruskin.

With Democrats about to take control of the U.S. House, opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have hope. But ANWR drilling is already written into law.

At noon on Tuesday, a dozen or more Native American leaders and activists lined up in front of the U.S. Capitol, holding signs that said “Defend the Arctic” and “Protect the Arctic Refuge.”

Bernadette Demientieff from Fort Yukon kicked off the press conference.

“I am here on behalf of the Gwich’in people, at the direction of my elders,” she said.

This Republican-controlled Congress is in its waning days, but the goal of the press conference was to make sure the Arctic Refuge is on the House agenda, and the public’s mind, next year. Because come January, drilling opponents will have some muscle in the House.

“I commit to you,” said Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., “as the incoming chairman of Indian Affairs and Insular affairs, that we will continue to fight with you every step of the way to see what we can do to stop this atrocity from happening.”

Of course, a lot of Alaska Natives, especially those representing Native corporations in the Arctic, don’t see an atrocity in the making. Many Alaska Natives want oil development in the refuge, to support communities with few other options for making money. Their side wasn’t represented at this press conference.

The next House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, jabbed the metal podium in his enthusiasm for the cause.

“House Democrats and our new majority will work to protect Native Americans and Alaska Natives in every part of our country,” Hoyer, D-Md., said. “We will work … could somebody clap on that?”

The crowd, which included activists and staffers from environmental groups, obliged. The Sierra Club helped organize the press event.

A reporter asked Hoyer what he hoped to accomplish, since any House bill would also have to pass the Senate, and there the Republican majority has grown by two.

“Well, you say, legislation won’t pass the Senate,” Hoyer said. “Very frankly, there are a lot of Republicans who represent a large number of Native Americans, and if they listen to them, then I’m not at all sure we won’t get some help from them.”

Sierra Club in-house lobbyist Athan Manuel watched the press conference from the sidelines. He has worked for years to get Congress to pass a bill with permanent protection for the refuge.

“We’re not going to get the final victory in the next two years,” Manuel acknowledged.

He said the goal for now, at least until there’s a new president, is to build momentum.

“That’s the great thing about having the House flip, is that it gives a chance to move a bill, maybe, on the House side,” Manuel said. “And then to have hearings and to have oversight. And put the Trump administration and the oil industry on the defensive, when it comes to drilling in the Arctic Refuge. And really just sowing doubt.”

As long as there’s doubt about whether the refuge will remain open to drilling, Manuel said, industry will be reluctant to invest.

“So the more doubt we throw into the process, the more sand we throw into the gears, the more we prolong this fight, it’s to our advantage,” he said.

The Trump administration plans to hold an ANWR lease sale in 2019. But the goal of conducting a 3-D seismic survey this winter isn’t certain. Mother Jones magazine reports on a leaked memo from the Fish and Wildlife Service that says it’d be nearly impossible to conduct the survey without jeopardizing polar bears.

An Interior Department official said last month the exploration company and the Fish and Wildlife Service were in talks to address the agency’s concerns.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at